“I’ve never seen a plant walk away from anyone.” With these words, I learned the importance of knowing about plants from my plant mentor, Marty Simon. Unlike hunting and fishing which don’t guarantee success, plant knowledge, if correct, will never fail you. Plant knowledge not only helps the survivor identify food, it allows him/her to make cordage, treat wounds, spice other foods and make them more palatable and much more. Learning about plants is not difficult with the right guidance, with patience and direction. Though there are thousands of plants in the world, the knowledge of a mere fraction of those will increase your survivability more than the individual without any.
If you are fortunate, you may have someone with proven plant expertise. This person might be an “old timer” with countless time in the bush, colloquial names for plants and other local know how. You may have a person who is an academic in the science field or someone who works with plants on a daily basis. Collect information wherever it is available as it is all relevant. Whether or not you have someone to bounce questions off of, make sure to have print supplements available. I recommend the Petersen’s Guide series as a great place to start. From there, look for books from other sources that include not only line drawings but color photos too. Remember this, the photos and representations in the books you use are of optimal plants. They may not represent what you will actually find. No matter what you use as a source, always check your sources. People can be wrong and information can be misprinted in publication. Err on the side of safety.
While speaking in absolutes is generally a bad idea, the following statements are good to know in terms of edibility. ALL segmented berries are edible (blackberries, mulberry, raspberry) and are the easiest to identify. In early stages, when they are white, they will be inedible meaning they will not yield any nutrition. Most people learn about blackberries in childhood and they are safe plant to forage. As your plant knowledge increases, you’ll find out why blackberry tea is good for females. Another good rule to remember is anything that smells like garlic or onions is edible as well. This includes the leek, wild onion and the highly invasive garlic mustard. Remember hearing, “leaves of three, let it be” in reference to Poison Ivy? That rules out edible red and white clovers with 3 leaves. Rules aren’t always accurate. It is easier to identify the dangerous plants than to rule out many more which could prove useful.
One temptation for those just getting into plant identification is to apply the military universal edibility test. It was a test originally meant for the most dire of circumstances when food is not available in captivity and was meant for the most select highly trained groups. This test SHOULD NOT be used by the general public as it could lead to fatal results. Also, the steps are often incorrectly listed and are rarely listed the same in multiple texts. Rather than shortcutting your plant education, set a realistic goal like learning one plant a week for a year or identifying 3 ways to use a single plant instead. Plant knowledge takes time to acquire but it is a worthwhile skill to possess. It isn’t as easy to “own” as something you buy but it will pay off many times over.
To quote my mentor once again, “when you start out, everything looks green” and this can’t be more accurate. As you increase your plant know how, you will start to pick up on smooth vs serrated leaves, compound leaves and other little nuances. I will discuss more about the importance of edible plants in future installments here. In the meantime, find out who you can learn from locally, get some printed resources, watch what you can on YouTube and start building your plant knowledge. If accurate, it won’t fail you!
About the Author
Kevin Estela is the Founder and Head Instructor of Estela Wilderness Education. He conducts private and semi-private wilderness and urban/suburban survival courses, tests and evaluates knives and equipment for various companies, is a Mountain Khakis Professional Ambassador, and is a life-long outdoors enthusiast with additional pastimes in canoeing/kayaking, fishing and cooking. Kevin's work has taken him from Los Angeles, CA to the United Kingdom and many points in between. Kevin is ranked in both Sayoc Kali and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and is a shooting enthusiast. Kevin is formerly the Lead Instructor for the Wilderness Learning Center. When not teaching outdoor skills, he is a full-time High School History Teacher and Track and Field Coach who lives in Connecticut.